Research Letter #12

Communicating through conferencing: Bushfire '99 in Albury, in mid winter!

Communication is difficult even at the best of times. While communication through writing allows for the careful choice of words, there is nothing like face-to-face communication to achieve understanding. Face-to-face communication provides the opportunity for immediate feedback – 'What did you mean?', 'Can you elaborate on that?', 'How is this relevant to management?', What do you think of my particular situation?, etc. – and this is the main benefit of a conference. Bushfire '99 was no exception in this regard. A number of the Council members and deputies were present along with nearly 300 other delegates from 6 countries. Most delegates were from Australia, of course. It was a relatively large gathering.

This particular conference had a number of special features. The first was that a guest was invited from the USA, Professor Jim Clark. Jim is a leading fire ecologist specializing in understanding the changes of vegetation, climate and fire-regime that have taken place in the USA in the last 10,000 years. His research is relevant to the problems of future climate change as well as those of climate change in the past. His mathematical models excite Australian fire ecologists because they encapsulate ideas that are significant to our situation, even the present one. Of particular interest are those ideas relating to the need (at least in some cases) for 'chance variation' in the expression of fire regimes if we are to keep our biodiversity intact. Such ideas are being actively researched in Australia as well so local researchers were able to quiz Jim at the conference.

A second special feature of this meeting was that there was a series of specialist review papers. These covered a wide range of topics which form the basis of a book currently being put together by Dr Ross Bradstock, of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, and co-editors. The book – to be called "Flammable Australia, the Fire Regimes and Biodiversity of a Continent" – should be available early next year. While the review papers will make a book, the written contributions of other presenters - students, managers and researchers - form the 430-page Proceedings. Many of the student presentations were assessed so that two cash prizes could be presented to the winners.

I'll highlight here the contributions of two of the students in the competition in order to give a flavour of the topics that I think may be of interest. Simon Millie, from Deakin University in Victoria, found that for accurate measurement of grassland curing based on satellite imagery in Victoria, regional calibrations made against field data may be necessary. This means that curing figures produced from satellite data may need to be carefully assessed rather than accepted without caution. The paper presented by another student from the same University, Ty Caling, also aroused a lot of interest. Ty made a case history of a 36 ha fire in a shrubland remnant near Melbourne. He looked at the effects of the fire-fighting operation on the fragmentation of the vegetation, soil compaction, and the invasion of exotic species (weeds). As the result of this single fire, the number of vegetation 'islands' was found to more than double (to 50) due to the construction of 7.5 km of extra bulldozer trails (in addition to the 11.8 km of tracks already present). The soil compaction observed was considered by Ty to probably be the result of the activities of the 64 tankers at the fire, not just the three bulldozers.

Literature cited:
  1. Caling, T. and Adams, R. (1999). Ecological impacts of fire suppression operations in a small vegetation remnant. In: Bushfire 99 Proceedings, Charles Sturt University, Albury, NSW. Pp. 69-75.
  2. Millie, S. and Adams, R. (1999). Measures of grassland curing: a comparison of destructive sampling with visual and satellite estimates. In: Bushfire 99 Proceedings, Charles Sturt University, Albury, NSW. Pp. 257-263.

Malcolm Gill
Division of Plant Industry, CSIRO
19 July 1999